Yesterday, I got up early here in Sitka to film halibut fishermen. They were uncertain of the weather, which is the only thing you can say about Alaska weather with any predictability. It is uncertain. So I packed Yia Yia along to watch the weather as Jeff and Megan, two friends that have fished together for years, cut bait. I arrived at the dock alone.
For some reason, I'd actually gotten up, or so it seemed, before the fishermen. Turns out I was wrong. Megan arrived just after I did. Jeff, she informed me, was driving back to find the bucket of bait that had fallen off the tailgate of his truck. In a town like Sitka, a bucket of thawing salmon laying in the road could be quite the find. Bears. Ravens. Eagles... they all eat fish and they all live here. There are also sports fishermen in town to try their hand at landing a big halibut, and they would be more likely than a commercial fisher to consider the mistake to be their good fortune. The commercial fishers are opportunistic when it comes to targeted species that come up in their gear, but they would most likely stand guard if they stumbled on a bucket of bait. Its hard enough earning a living by hauling out marketable fish and they know it.
Jeff showed up a few minutes later the two were busily cutting heads off the bait and threading chunks onto large hooks. I watched the sky and felt for the breeze to try and predict if Yia Yia would fly today. The plan was to launch her from the boat and keep her in the air long enough to get a look at the boat in action, as she filmed us in Sitka Sound.
Jeff's skiff is 21' long. That's not a small boat for halibut.... its ridiculously small. This is one of the many conscientious fishermen I've met on this trip. Both Jeff and Megan have been fishing for a long time. They are committed to ensuring there will be fishing for a long time to come. They work incredibly hard. I watched as they deftly cut fish and hand-baited their hooks.
The halibut they will catch and bring to market will not be part of the something like 10 million pounds of by-catch allowed by ocean managers for bottom trawlers. Jeff and Megan are part of an economic ecosystem that struggles to survive. They target halibut, unlike trawlers that target everything in their paths. Ocean managers watch small fishers more closely than a Greek grandmother. Trawlers, on the other hand, seem to run a bit wild. The fish that Jeff will haul in on his nearly mile long line will be hoisted into the skiff, immediately bled, by hand, and packed in ice for the short trip to the processor that grades theirs along with other artisinal fishers in this fleet as the highest quality halibut money can buy.
Jeff named his boat several years back, the "Salt Lick", for reasons he can't explain. We went out as soon as the bait was cut and before I knew it, we were dropping the anchor line that held the buoy of the starting end of the line. The "anchor" Jeff uses on each end is large rounded chain. Even that seems to be a thoughtful choice. Compared to those huge ships that scrape the bottom with trawl nets into a desolate wasteland, this fisherman touches down with heavy, but rounded links that stay put for the most part. Along the way, as line is paid out while Megan drives the boat, Jeff places hand baited hooks every ten feet or so. And we leave the two buoys with their convenient morsels to "soak"as they say.
We didn't fly Yia Yia on that sortee, but hoped for good weather when we'd return to haul whatever halibut has hooked up six hours or so later.
As I watched the two fishers do their work I was struck with the amount of effort and care they put into getting great fish, and keeping them that way... hopefully all the way to the plate. It may be a chef's responsibility to prepare the meal, but an unconscionable fisherman can make or break a night out at an expensive restaurant.
We went back out at 4pm. This time the wind at the dock was gusting and though I had Yia Yia with me, I wasn't hopeful. There was very little room on the skiff and even less margin for error.
Yia Yia has smarts. The DJI Phantom has this wonderful emergency back up system. If things get dicey, such as dead transmitter batteries or loss of signal from the transmitter... the drone would land itself in exactly the location from which it took off. The problem with being out at sea, of course, is the inability to keep the boat in place. Complicating things, when Jeff started hauling the line up, he was committed. He was not going to abandon his work (potentially leaving thousands of dollars of halibut hooked up) to go chasing my Yia Yia.
So, in the event of an emergency, I was not just on my own, I'd be pretty much sunk. Yia Yia doesn't swim, and to make matters worse, any data in the card will be irretrievable. Strangely, the entire trip back out to the soaking line was choppy, gusty and over big swells; but when we got to the buoy, it was almost glassy calm. And so I decided to risk a flight.
I launched the Phantom alone, starting it while I held it in one hand. I gave her the "gas" and she she shot upward, becoming instantly small and vulnerable to the wind and changing weather. I had one thought... "now what?" I was as committed to the flight as Jeff was to his line of fish. Both of us, through our own technologies, were tethered to our work. I flew several angles and fought the higher gusts of wind that were not evident at the water's surface.
When I reviewed the footage, I noticed that Jeff had been releasing monsters as he pulled them up. He has a quota of ling cod, but it's tied to a percentage of the haul of halibut. Since he hadn't caught any halibut yet, he could not take any of the marketable cod by-catch. He had to let them go. You can see it from the air. Huge fish, released as he waited for halibut. And then it happened. I was maneuvering Yia Yia overhead on a high shot when Jeff called to Megan for help. The huge flat, meaty fish was in a matter of seconds slapping my legs with its powerful tail. I was amazed at its strength. This did not improve my odds of bringing Yia Yia home.
Waves were pitching me up and down, the beast at my feet was trying hard to make a play for the sea again, and the drone's battery was showing a red light - time to come "home". I pulled back on the power, spun to face away from me for better orientation and could not get her back overhead. The boat was spinning on its own as the hydraulics pulled in the line and suddenly I could no longer see Yia Yia. The roof of the skiff bounced into my view instead with a swell from behind me. The Pharntom, though waited patiently, it seemed, for the roof to clear and I saw my opportunity, killing the throttle and dropping her into my outstretched hand. A kind of fishing, in fact - that combination of skill and luck. I carefully packed her up and spent the rest of the day filming Megan and Jeff's haul of over 300lbs of marketable, clean, perfect fish. It was a good day.
They caught the fish, I caught it on film with the watchful and ever-present hovering of Yia Yia.
After several hours, we managed to take some rock fish, a few huge ling cod and an octopus that tried every trick in the book to get itself back to the sea. And of course the halibut. As important to Jeff and Megan and a growing number of fishermen in SE Alaska in what they take out of the sea is what they leave behind. Their by-catch (best defined as "non-target" species), is minimal. The many skates, one large eel and undersized halibut were left behind with just a small toothache. And that's a far cry from cleaning out the sea of everything in their path. This is intimacy-fishing. These fishers are in close contact with the fish they take, and those they put back. I'm not an expert, nor am I filled with thoughtful solutions. But to this simple fisher of stories, it seems obvious who should be constantly monitored by a hovering busy-body. And it's not the small boat fishing fleet of Southeast Alaska.